This past week I was invited to speak in our nation’s capital at the Department of Health and Human Services’ ceremony announcing its new Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom. Here is what I said.
As an educator, perhaps the one thing I can bring to this discussion today is a bit of history lesson. Pedantic though it may be, bear with me for just a brief word or two.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson set the cornerstone for our constitutional republic and on that stone, he carved these words: 1) We are created; 2) We are equal; and 3) We are endowed by God — not government — with certain and specific inalienable, incontrovertible, indisputable, and undeniable, rights.
In 1791 James Madison wrote the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Madison knew that the essential and “First” Right of mankind was to pursue meaning and happiness and he knew that this was the business of the church, and that of individual conscience, not that of the king or the courts. Congress was the protector of this “First Thing” and not its progenitor.
The simplicity of Madison’s argument was quite clear: The federal government should never presume to define the matters of the church. It should never pretend to “establish” dictate, define, contradict or contravene religious belief. This is not the government’s business but rather it is the right and responsibility of the church and of the American people.
Furthermore, and just as important, the government should never presume to prohibit any citizen’s free expression of their faith. In other words, religion is not merely some secondary matter relegated to one’s private life, but rather it is a public priority of personal values and corporate morals and something that all faithful people live out on a daily basis in the market square of life.
This is not the government’s business, said Madison, and Congress should leave the church alone and never presume to tell people what to believe or how to or how not to practice their faith.
Eleven years later, Jefferson found it necessary to reassure a small group of Christians at the Danbury Baptist Church that they did not have to fear government intrusion: “I contemplate with [utmost] reverence,” he said, “that act which declared that [the] legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Jefferson’s message was unmistakable: There is a wall protecting the church and its parishioners from the state and no government should ever presume to breach that wall. This wall was not erected as a prison but rather as fortress. It exists to protect the church, not to confine it. Jefferson no more intended this wall to restrain the church than he intended the walls of his own home to restrain him.
As a house has a door whereby you come and go — engaging culture and doing your civic duty — so Jefferson’s wall had a door whereby the church entered society to do its good work. The key here is this: The church holds the key, not Congress, and the door is locked from the inside not the outside. Jefferson was clearly telling those concerned in Danbury Connecticut that this wall was built for the church’s benefit, not the government’s.
My industry of higher education is one that has historically venerated of the church and its Gospel. Harvard’s founding charter called to “lay Christ at the bottom as the foundation for all learning.” Brown University declared, “In God We Hope.” Northwestern’s shield still bears this inscription from Philippians: “Whatsoever things are true ” The University of California’s motto is “Fiat Lux: Let There Be Light.” Oklahoma Wesleyan University still stands unapologetically in this tradition and boldly asserts the primacy of Christ, the priority of Scripture, the pursuit of truth and the practice of wisdom as our mission. This is who we are. This is our charter. This is our cause.
But today it seems we live in the time of great reversals. Darkness has become light and light has become darkness. Bitter has become sweet and sweet has become bitter. Lies are presented as truth. Happiness, it seems, has died at the hands of the hapless.
We have lost clarity and conviction and are mired in confusion and contradiction. We hear it in the streets and in the halls of Congress. “I can’t tolerate your intolerance. I hate you hateful people. I am sure that nothing is sure.” Self-refuting nonsense. Political pablum at its worst. Liberty has become law and freedom is crushed by the fasces.
A New HHS/OCR Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom should not be necessary, for all of government should be that division. But, at a time when Congress actually thinks it makes sense to tell nuns that they must purchase contraception and when our courts actually believe they have the right to redefine a sacrament of the church, we need this division and I thank God for it.
• Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, is the author of “Not A Day Care: The Devastating Consequences of Abandoning Truth” (Regnery 2017).